Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

7 Sep

In a nutshell…

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu and Obinze who grow up and fall in love as teeneagers in Nigeria during the 1990s. They are separated when Ifemelu moves to America to study. Adichie’s novel tells the tale of Ifemelu’s introduction to America and the changes it has on both herself and her relationship with Obinze. While Ifemelu and Obinze’s relationship is central to this novel, this is not just a love story with plenty of other themes explored including race, class and politics and the legacies they leave.

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I was slightly apprehensive when I first picked this book up. It was the title of choice for my book club last month and is not a book I would normally be drawn to. Weighing in at nearly 500 pages, the prospect of slugging through it in order to have an intelligent conversation with my friend who picked (and loved) this book was slightly daunting.

Thankfully, my fears were unfounded. This book is both smart and funny and deals with issues of race and class with an irony and lightness of touch I haven’t come across in a long time.

Americanah is the story of Ifemelu who starts the book as a teenager growing up in Nigeria. The students who attend her school are obsessed with the western world and schoolyard creed is measured by how many songs, fashion labels and magazines you have picked up from the two bastions of western culture, Britain and America.

While Ifemelu wears American fashions and reads American magazines her connection to the west is different. She is much more reserved and skeptical about the dream that is America and what it can really offer.

This reticence deepens after Ifemelu travels to America to live and study. Adjustment to a new country is hard and Ifemelu faces the inevitable bouts of racism (some inadvertent, others blatant) as well as unemployment, depression and financial woes. The novel becomes quite dark about a third of the way through however is saved from being outright depressing by Ifemelu’s dry humour and steady perseverance.

Ifemelu eventually chronicles her experiences in a successful blog which ultimately ends up being the vehicle of her salvation, providing her with a stable income and the opportunity to articulate the otherness she feels. As a reader I found the blog a great narrative tool. It got across some otherwise confronting messages in a direct way without preaching.

For me this book had two key draw cards. The scenes about Nigeria, which are for want of a better comparison, written in HD quality with full surround sound. Adichie talks about Nigerian life in such as way that I often got the feeling I was watching the story unfold while being shown around by a local.

The second draw card are the novel’s two key characters, Ifemelu and her love interest Obinze. I can’t help but wonder if these characters are drawn from Adichie’s own life, they’re both so genuine with personalities, hang ups and faults which most readers can relate to. While reading this book there were a number of times I found myself annoyed at choices that Ifemelu or Obinze had made. In my experience the ability of characters to irritate me through their antics is a sure sign of a good book as I’m becoming I’m becoming involved and not just passively reading.

However while Ifemelu and Obinze are both written in technicolor the rest of the characters are not (with few exceptions). I found many characters, particularly the American characters to be two dimensional and in some instances not much better than stereotypes. For instance, Curt, who is one of the key influences on Ifemelu’s life while she is in America is rich, beautiful and megawatt happy but not much else. Similarly, the members of Curt’s family vary between shades of vapid and pleasant. The only marginally interesting character from the family group is Curt’s bitchy cousin Laura, who is threatened by Ifemelu’s appearance in the family and vents this through various childish but humourous attempts at baiting Ifemelu with poorly guised racist remarks.

The verdict? I definitely recommend this. Its long (maybe too long in parts) but easy to read and will have you thinking about it for weeks afterwards.

Review: The Cleaner of Chartres

4 Sep

Cleaner of Chartres I have read most of Sally Vickers’ novels (Mr Golightly’s holiday I only managed to get halfway through) and she writes in such a gentle, knowing kind of way that when you finish each book you find that reading it as been a refreshing experience. Each book seems to have some link with religion and this always has me wondering what kind of upbringing Vickers had in that her wonder with the religious and spiritual still seem in tact and unburdened by disappointment or disillusionment.

This story centres around the town of Chartres and its famous cathedral. It was a coincidence that the book I finished before starting on this one was Alex Miller’s Conditions of Faith, part of which was also set in Chartres (the site of Emily’ affair and also where she returns to give birth to her daughter, Marie). The whole issue of motherhood looming in Emily’s life took on new meaning when  read the first few paragraphs of the Cleaner of Chartres and finding out that the key draw card (I.e. Relic) of the cathedral was the birthing gown of the Virgin Mary, a gift to the church by the grandson of Charlemagne, and a gift that miraculously survived the fire in the cathedral in 1194. S this was a holy mother site literally.

The main character in this book is Agnes Morel – this not being her real name, but as she was abandoned as a baby, found by a rural farmer Jean Dupere, in an area where the morels usually go – this is how he came to name her – Agnes after the lady saint, and Morel after where she was found. He takes Agnes to the nearby Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy who eventually agree to take the baby Agnes in and raise her.

Agnes life progresses in waves of happiness and sadness and many yeas later she ends up in the town of Chartres, destitute, alone and looking for a new start. Slowly she begins to build a life and home for herself (doing way more cleaning than it should be right for anyone person to do) and we learn about the lives and loves of the small cast of characters that surround Agnes in her new life, each of whom have been damaged in some way, and each of whom have come to Chartres to find something that they seem to be only getting just by without.

Sometimes you think that Vickers is cast her characters is too black and white a tone, that there is not enough grey around the edges for them to be real, but then she takes you gives one further, however small insight and you are back in thinking these are real people. The town of Chartres also is a character and like much writing of the south of France, this place seems to take on the aura of a fairytale (could any place be so lovely, so quaint and perfect without crime, graffiti or even litter!)

This is another book that you can quickly glide through and enjoy the feeling that reading it give you, the feeling doesn’t last that long afterwards, but that is ok – it is good while it lasts.

The winter book buying moratorium

16 Jul

Well I am back in the country and back to the blog…more about my book adventures abroad later. First up I would like to talk about a bit of an experiment I am conducting with the lil sis – a winter book buying moratorium. This experiment came about for two reasons; firstly looking around our respective book shelves and realising we had many, many books we had on our bookshelves that we wanted to read, but never seem to have time, and secondly to save money. But back to the first reason, I also find I never have time to read my books, but that is not exactly true, I spend lots of time reading – it is more that books have so much competition for my reading eye.

So a book buying moratorium offers me the opportunity to give the books I already own space to catch my eye. The moratorium began on the winter solstice and will end on the spring equinox  – very pagan timetable I know. I have been discovering some great titles on my shelves – first up I have been reading Alexandra Harris’ biography of Virginia Woolf, and also two books in the Alison Bruce‘s Gary Goodhew detective series. I am looking forward to my PD James Death in Pemberley (which I got for christmas), Claire Tomlin’s biography of  Dickens, and George MegalogenisAustralian Moment. So stay tuned for some new reviews.

Review: The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst

20 Jun

This is a book that has been on my ‘to-read list’ for a while – as Alan Hollinghurst‘s The Stranger’s Child was long listed for the 2011 Booker Prize. Well most of you know how my booker-thon went last year (managed to read only one of the 13 long listed books – the one which, I might add, actually went on to win the prize. I did get to feel smug for a few days but then I would just remind myself the reason why I started with Julian Barnes The Sense of Ending – the fact that it was the shortest book!). Anyway, I finally got around to reading another book on last year’s long list with The Stranger’s Child. Hollinghurst, of course won the Booker in 2004 with The Line of Beauty. When I was living in the UK they made this into a series on TV and I caught a few episodes of it, but the actor playing the main character annoyed me, and I must admit this put me off reading the book as well.

The Stranger’s Child follows the story of the Sawle and Valance families throughout the 20th century. Cecil Valance, and emerging poet comes to stay with his Cambridge university friend and secret lover, George Sawle. Georges’ sixteen year old sister, Daphne, is excited to meet a real poet, and an aristocratic one at that, and asks Cecil to write something in  her autograph book. Cecil does more than just sign the book, he writes a poem; a poem that becomes with war looming a touchstone of englishness, even quoted by Churchill. The poem and knowing Cecil Valance changes all of the Sawle’s for good and bad. The book reads like a Henry James or E. M Forrester novel with gay relationships the focus of repression, instead of class or money as is the case of a James or Forrester novel.

Cecil, of course is killed in WW1, this all adds to the tragedy and the creation of the poetic myth that surrounds him. “Of course one indulged the dead, wrote off their debts; one forgave them as one lamented them; and cecil had been mightily clever and fearless, no doubt, and had broken many hearts in his short life. But surely no one but Louisa could want a new memorial to him, ten years after his passing? Here they all were, submissively clutching their contributions. A dispiriting odour, a false piety and dutiful suppression, seemed to rise from the table and hang like cabbage-smells in the jelly-mould domes of the ceiling”.

The writing is also very good, beautiful, but flows along lightly in the way that Peter Carey’s work didn’t. The number of characters and how they are all revisited t different stages of their lives makes this satisfying read and you don’t notice the 550+ pages. The ending is also mysterious and beautiful – all the secrets that the book has tried to keep the whole way through are released but in a way that shows that there were never really any secrets and that everything was already known.

Four stars

★★★★☆

On the road again

20 Jun

I will be travelling over the next few weeks. I would say this means that I will not be able to blog as much, but that is not usually the case – I can usually manage to blog quite regularly when I am away, it is just the every day things that seem to get in the way normally. As you may have been able to detect from my lack of posts over the past month or so – the Sydney writers festival just blurred into some work projects,and then  started a new job….I know exec uses, excuses, must do better next time.

Well my first stop is Paris, so I thought I would share with you some pics from my free day of meetings, when I actually got to get out and about in the sunshine.

Review: Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser

10 Jun

Edward Glaeser was an author I followed closely whilst doing my PhD. When other academics would ask about my thesis topic, their reply would also include have you read the latest Glaeser…..So I new book by Glaeser was always going to get my attention – but I will understand that this is probably not a book that will appeal to everyone. In Triumph of The City Glaeser investigates the modern city, and reveals how the rise of the city has delivered many positives that far outweigh any negatives, to modern human development. His starting point is that now, for the first time in human history, more than half of the worlds population lives in cities. This is despite the rise of communications and electronic devices that allow us for both work and play to no longer live close together.

Glaeser goes on to argue that we need to continue to urbanise, particularly in developing economies if we are going to see everyone with an increasing quality of life that will not cost the earth…literally. In the developed world the current trend is towards urbanisation but on a less dense scale than true city development – suburbanisation or as it also known sprawl. When arguing against suburbanisation, Glaeser himself admits he has fallen under its spell. As he muses ” I am sufficiently unusual that I’m always cautious about using my own life to infer anything about anyone else’s but my decision to suburbanise was a conventional one, driven for the most part by common factors…the forces that brought me to a suburb: living space, soft grass for spill-prone toddlers, a desire to diversify my life with greater distance from my employer, a fast commute, and good schools. Of these five factors, only two – the grass and distance form Harvard – are independent of public policies” But he posits “it is going to be a lot better for the planet if (India and China) urbanised population lives in dense cities built around the elevator, rather than in sprawling areas built around the car”. If that is to be the case, then the developed world needs to provide a good example rather than expecting the developing world to do something that we are not prepared to do.

In this argument, Glaeser’s book makes a strong argument – he does however dance around some of the down sides of the urbanisation debate – such as are their limits to the amount of density and population that can be supported by individual cities? Where is that limit? How do we work out what parts of our cities to preserve? And how do we stop that decision being made that is suitable for our current generation and our tastes, but maybe regretted by future generations? Glaeser does not seem to actively engage in these discussios and questions, not thatI expect answers, these are hard questions, and I don’t think solutions are going to come from one book but there does not seem to be an acknowledgement of the complexity of these arguments.

His suggestion for addressing height and density concerns within existing cities is to establish a system of fees “If tall heights create costs by blocking light or views, then form a reasonable estimate of those costs and charge the builder appropriately. If certain activities are noxious to neighbours, then we should estimate the social costs and charge builders for them, just as we should charge drivers for the costs of her congestion. Those taxes could then be given to the people who are suffering, such as neighbours who lose light from a new construction project”.

Even if we could start estimating a reasonable cost for amenities such as natural light into your apartment, and then could design a taxation system that could redistribute these costs in a way we could have confidence would be fair – this doesn’t resolve the issue that some people have lost out on basic amenity to others – i think a system of more stringent building standards that ensured good quality design, planning and building for a range of cities, not just in major cities would allow a more geographically equitable and dispersed urbanisation to occur.

SWF – Day One

14 May

The day started with the beautiful drive up to the Blue Mountains for two days of writers fest programme at the Carrington Hotel in Katoomba. First up was former NSW Attorney General leading a conversation with Martin Thomas about biography and speculative non-fiction. Thomas was discussing his biography of R.H. Matthews.

R.H. Matthews immigrated from Ireland with his family after some interesting meetings with a tax collector. The young Matthews prospered in the new colony of New South Wales as a surveyor, and in his later life turned to anthropology with gusto – becoming an expert on Aboriginal culture and language in NSW.

We were very lucky to have Martin Thomas talking with us on this morning, because his book about R.H. Matthews, The many worlds of R.H. Matthews was short listed for the $25,000 National Biography Award. We would learn later that he was successful in winning this award – congratulations to Dr Thomas!

The rest of the day included sessions on genre blending fiction, a delicious lunch at the Leura Gourmet before further sessions on literary criticism and memoir in the afternoon…. a busy first day!

Sydney Writers’ Festival

13 May

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the 2012 Sydney Writers Festival and this year I have some time off from work and I am going to make the most of it by getting around to a few events. On Monday and Tuesday I will be up in the Blue Mountains for the Varunna component of the festival programme – including sessions on speculative history and biography, speculating on genres and on Tuesday Sebastian Barry discussing his latest book On Canaan’s Side.

Later in the week I am going to a non-fiction workshop with Mark Tredinnick, Jane Gleeson-White talking about venetian finance, Peter James talking crime and Edmund de Waal at the Opera House at the end of the week. So it should be a busy week and I will try and post some updates during the week about how things are going.

Miles Franklin short list

7 May

I have been a bit slack on updating the prize lists for this year. Last week saw the announcement of the short list for the 2012 Miles Franklin award and this year it made for happier reading in terms of gender equity of the nominated authors. Remembering back to last year and the controversy and turmoil that was created when let year’s shortlist was announced, and all three shortlisted author’s were male. Hundreds of articles then followed on what this meant for female authors, whether their was an in-built sexism in the literature world, we even had a go at it here.

If we were ever in any doubt as to the state of female authored literature in Australia – then this year’s shortlist will put those doubts to rest. Three out of the five shortlisted authors are female – Anna Funder for All that I am, (which I really loved and reviewed here), Gillian Mears for Foal’s Bread, and Pavel Parrett for Past the Shallows. Frank Moorhouse (for Cold Light, the final in his Edith Trilogy) and Tony Birch for Blood, round out the shortlist.

The shortlist is also good news for new authors with three of the shortlisted authors also debut novelists (Anna Funder, Pavel Parrett and Tony Birch). So, all in all sounds like Australian fiction is in good health!

Anna Funder’s book is the only one I have read of the five; I have Cold Light, but need to read the first two Edith novels first. I have heard good things about Gillian Mear’s and Pavel Parrett’s books but they have not as yet crossed my path. Any one else read books on the shortlist?

Book and author pics are from the Miles Franklin Trust website 

Visiting Berkerlouw’s Berrima Book Barn

26 Apr

Yesterday I went on an excursion to the Berrima Book Barn of Berkerlouw Books (how is that for alliteration). Anzac day, and  a public holiday meant a mid-week break from work. Also the mama’s birthday, and what better why to spend the first really cold day on the autumn but in a book barn, with a log fire and a 50% discount. Yes, Berkerlouw’s book barn is being renovated to make way for more books (I hope) but also a wine bar and restaurant (how very civilised). Prior to the renovations the barn is having a sale, with 50% of all secondhand books and 20% of all new and rare books. I took the opportunity to extend my Michael Frayn collection, grab a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and Alan Hollingsworth 2004 Booker winner The Line of Beauty (I am reading his latest, The Strangers Child  and I am impressed). The hubby took the opportunity to extend the Hunter S Thompson collection and an italian travelogue by Paul Theroux. Check out the book stack below…even the cat is impressed.

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